Ursula's SOTEU: Leading in Testing Times or Eurobubble Trap?

In her State of the Union (SOTEU) address Ursula von der Leyen was sober, calibrated and level-headed. But as her administration comes to its end, did she rise to the occasion by offering leadership in testing times marked by apocalyptical fires, floods and war or is she trapped in a euro-bubble? JAMES DEBONO reports.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen

Ursula von der Leyen’s surprise appointment as president of the European Commission five years ago came as the result of a political agreement between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 

Her appointment left the European People’s Party lead candidate and fellow German Manfred Weber on the wayside. 

Von der Leyen started her term by reaching out to liberals, socialists and greens in a bid to consolidate a pro-Europe working majority in the European parliament. 

But after showing competence in leading the European Commission through a global pandemic followed by a war, standing tall in confronting Russian aggression and leaving an ambitious ‘green new deal’ as her legacy, she is now poised to present herself as her party’s lead candidate, thus endowing her second term with democratic legitimacy. 

This inevitably turned the spotlight on her ‘state of the union’ speech, the last of this legislature which is widely seen as her launch pad for a second term.  But to secure this candidacy she has now to contend with apprehension in her own political family and consolidate her position among conservatives without losing sight of potential allies and king makers.   

This explains the balancing act in a speech which emphasised the concerns of the centre right, but which also pandered to Emmanuel Macron’s assertive stance in a trade dispute with China while throwing a couple of sops on social issues to the left. 

But is this political balancing act what is needed for Europe now? 

The political cost of inflation  

For as Europe itself grapples with extreme weather and making action on climate change more urgent than ever, electorates are increasingly nervous over inflation which erodes their living standards. This is a scenario which risks creating a rift between economic and urgent ecological considerations. 

But curiously in her speech Von der Leyen made only four references to inflation while making 16 references to competitiveness in an indication that her priority is to boost the performance of the European economy in the hope that wealth would trickle downwards. 

Moreover, with another term in mind, she was careful not to ruffle too many feathers, tampering her commitment for the EU’s ambitious ‘green new deal’ which a greater focus on meeting the needs of agribusiness, industry and “restoring competitiveness”. 

This comes amidst unease in her own political family (the European People’s Party) as evidenced by the opposition of a majority of centre right MEPs to new biodiversity rules impacting on agribusiness which were championed by the commission led by Von der Leyen. 

To get the political legitimacy for another term in office, Von der Leyen needs the endorsement of the EPP as its lead candidate in next June’s elections. 

In its reaction to the speech, the EPP welcomed Von der Leyen's emphasis on competitiveness, the investigation of Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles, her emphasis on reducing bureaucracy for SMEs and protecting “farmers” as well as her commitments on migration, enlargement and a European Defence Union. 

But she also needs to reach out to liberals, socialists and greens to win wider support both in the European parliament and among national governments. 

This may become trickier as EPP member parties flirt with more conservative forces in countries like Italy, Spain and Sweden - an approach reportedly favoured by Manfred Weber who wants closer links with Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia whom he credits for moving closer to the political centre. 

A speech in a bubble? 

In the context of looming MEP elections, “a carefully worded State of the Union address, aiming to please the vast majority, was only to be expected”, lawyer and former Labour deputy mayor Desiree Attard notes. 

But “despite her best efforts, however, President von der Leyen's speech felt far too enclosed in the Euro-bubble to truly impact citizens across the EU”. 

Former prime minister and present Labour MEP Alfred Sant describes her address as “a good, competent speech that touched practically all policy areas her Commission has been dealing with these past years”. But she also gave the impression of proposing more of the same. 

“In so doing, she might have played too much to Brussels decision makers and affiliated groupings,” Sant says. He also warns of the risk that in the next months the commission will be considered as a “caretaker” noting that prominent commission members are already moving on to national politics. 

Of note is the departure of socialist Frans Timmermans who spearheaded the climate change drive as vice president of the commission, who moved back to Dutch politics as the leader of a red-green alliance. 

Nationalist MP Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici is more positive in his assessment noting Von der Leyen’s assertive position in making Vladimir Putin regime’s accountable for war crimes. He also praises her focused approach in first charting out past accomplishments and then presenting a clear programme for her remaining 300 days in office. This, he adds, shows that Von der Leyen is not a “lame duck” and remains “abreast with the times”. 

Mifsud Bonnici adds that Von der Leyen adopted a “factual approach” that contrasts with populism which thrives on misinformation. 

Independent candidate Arnold Cassola concurs that the  speech was largely a “positive one”. But he also notes that “the distance and gap between speeches denoting political vision and pragmatic reality is still enormous” and that “programmatic speeches become useless if not translated into real practice”. 

For example, he notes that the continuously rising cost of living is having an enormous impact on European citizens, pushing more of them towards the poverty level.  In this context Cassola suggests that concretely the  EU should seriously embark on collective procurement for basic daily necessities such as grain and medicines, on the same model adopted for buying the COVID vaccine and natural gas. 

The competitiveness mantra 

In her speech Von der Leyen referred to three challenges facing Europe, namely shortages in the  labour market, inflation and the business environment “at a time when we are also asking industry to lead on the clean transition”. 

“So we need to look further ahead and set out how we remain competitive as we do that… Because Europe will do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep its competitive edge,” she said. 

Yet rather than coming up with her own proposals Von der Leyen has delegated the job to economist and former Italian PM Mario Draghi whom she describes as “one of Europe's great economic minds”. He has been entrusted with preparing a report on the future of European competitiveness.   

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici welcomes the choice of Draghi which reflects Von der Leyen’s sobriety and business-like approach. But he also notes her commitment made to “the social market economy”, which he believes is a hallmark of the European social model that unites the political centre ground.  While noting that her claim that “instead of millions of people looking for jobs, millions of jobs are looking for people” could not reflect the situation in every member state, he notes that under her leadership Europe has defied predictions of a relapse to the 1930s in the wake of a pandemic which was also followed by a war. 

“Europe has managed to defend itself and remain resilient in a time characterised by one crisis after the other,” Mifsud Bonnici says. He welcomes her focus on innovation particularly in the energy sector, noting her repeated reference the Critical Raw Materials Act which is intended to make the EU more competitive and autonomous. But he also notes that Von der Leyen’s focus on industrial competitiveness also betrays a sensitivity to German concerns, noting that it is inevitable that “national interests” pervade the agenda of European politicians.   

But former Labour leader Alfred Sant fears that her focus on competitiveness which he describes as “the mantra of the centre right” fails to address pressing social needs troubling electorates. 

“Improving competitiveness as the best approach by which to meet the arising challenges does not really respond to the disquiet which is being expressed by citizens,” Sant says.  

He attributes this emphasis on competitiveness to political exigency, namely her need to consolidate support on the right in her bid to seek another term in office.  

“She has probably decided to seek a second term in office as indicated by her reference to Jacques Delors, one of the two Commissioners who served two terms,” Sant surmises. 

But while pandering to her support base on the right, Sant also notes that “she took care as well to throw some sops on social issues to the centre left”. 

Desiree Attard is even more scathing in her criticism of Von der Leyen’s social priorities noting that when referring to labour shortages, an issue which is also plaguing Malta she failed to address the precariousness of certain jobs. 

“What she completely failed to mention, however, was the quality of the jobs which are on offer, and the dismal conditions workers are being made to endure, who are very often working in precarious conditions for very little pay,” Attard says. 

Attard believes that prioritising the Green Deal is crucial, but this momentous shift cannot happen without paying proper attention to labour rights in the widest sense of the term – from an adequate living wage to work-life balance and health and safety. 

“To maintain the current capitalist system and greenwash it will simply not do. These are realities which failed to make it to the President's speech, together with the very urgent cost of living crisis and poverty,” Attard says. 

Another term for Ursula? 

Both Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici and Alfred Sant believe that Ursula von der Leyen was laying the ground for another five years at the helm of the commission.  Mifsud Bonnici also believes it will be the best choice for the European Union.  “She has proved herself in the role and she clearly deserves it,” he says. 

Mifsud Bonnici notes that to get a second term she also needs the support of her party, the EPP, which will probably remain the largest group in the European parliament. But she will also need the support of larger EU member states. 

“The fact that she hails from Germany, which is the largest EU member state is clearly an advantage for her,” Mifsud Bonnici says. For this reason, he adds, it is unlikely for someone like European Parliament President Roberta Metsola to be chosen as the EPP’s lead candidate for the role. 

“Of course, I wish to see Roberta in that role… she has also proved herself and in so doing she made Malta more relevant, but we have to keep our feet on the ground."